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Open Web Camp V - Recap

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The Open Web Camp V was held last weekend, July the 13th at the PayPal Town Hall in San Jose, CA. It featured diverse speakers on a wide range of topics spanning different aspects of the Open Web Platform and beyond. These included  HTML5, CSS3, Web Accessibility, Responsive Web Design and Mobile Technology topics, but also provide opportunities for networking with peers. Participants were equally drawn from diverse backgrounds including education institutions (Stanford, and SUL staff attended), e-commerce, non-profits, business, open source activists and hobbyists among others. Two of the sessions - one on mobile web performance presented by web developer Estelle Weyl, and another on stifling patterns among teams by Bill Scott, SVP of UI Engineering at PayPal will be reviewed, with an emphasis on aspects relevant to SUL.

According to recent web statistics, about 40% of mobile phone users and 20% of tablet owners access websites using these devices. What User Interface (UI) design, development and accessibility challenges does this present to organizations relying on websites as their primary link to clients? Estelle used examples from her web development experiences to illustrate usability, design and programming imperatives for providing optimum browsing experiences for both desktop and mobile users. 

On the other hand, User Experience (UX) teams, as well as many other collaborative initiatives at universities, businesses and other organizations often encounter situations where members from engineering, design, management, user experience, Quality Assurance (QA) and others converge to develop and deliver new web experiences. What are the common pitfalls arising from such collaborative activities, and how might we resolve such issues? Using the term "Anti-Patterns", Bill Scott provided some insights through examples from his time at Netflix, when the company ventured into content streaming, as well as his recent work developing the customer checkout experience at PayPal.

Mobile Web

Apart from the obvious culprits - battery, screen size, memory and network accessibility; there are other nuances in features and functionalities, such as double click, image file type (ever heard of png8?), server requests and even page transitions, that pose interesting design and development challenges on sites created for multiple browsers, screen sizes and devices. For such websites to perform efficiently on mobile devices like smart phones, developers must minimize or entirely avoid some  common standards such as .gif files, JavaScript code, DNS lookups and HTTP requests, redirects and even some libraries/frameworks. Using Sprites (multiple image files combined into one) with the most requested images, employing media queries to determine which images and resolution to use (Estelle used the “clown car”example), and leveraging local storage all help mitigate the mobile challenges without degrading the desktop experience. With many Stanford sites incorporating responsive and adaptive design - where media queries are used to detect the resolution at which the page is served, such considerations will increasingly affect the website design.

Anti-Patterns In Collaborative Teams

Bill Scott’s session dealt with a different aspect of web design and development. He focused on the interpersonal dynamics between lean User Experience teams, but which may also occur in any collaborative group whether in web design, technology or other fields. Imagine the process involved in transitioning Netflix from the DVD rental paradigm to the streaming service that emerged towards the end of the last decade. He pointed out that while data often pointed out what users did, it told very little about why, and they relied on user experience teams to learn more about their customers. Amongst four final designs initially selected by his team at Netflix, an unlikely candidate ended up winning due to a feature that engaged user longer than the others. His current work at PayPal focusses on the checkout experience on their websites in light of the dynamic user and device choices, behavior and preferences. Three key takeaways from this session were that:

  • Move away from deliverables to a living specifications, where the team collaboratively and iteratively work on the project rather than individuals disappearing for days to emerge with “this is what I created for you”.
  • Start with a shared understanding of what the project is about - the more understanding the less documentation, but this doesn't mean zero documentation.
  • Use continuous customer feedback to eliminate the “magic designer” and to move the project on without hurt feelings on members whose ideas get dropped or modified.

This session revealed the complex dynamics between web designers, developers, UX teams, quality assurance, project managers and users amongst others, when creating web resources for diverse needs, platforms and use cases. The good news, however is that most people are becoming familiar with cross-functional teams, and are gaining the experiences that enable such teams to operate effectively. 

For links and additional info on the presenters as well as the event, check out the Open Web Camp page at: